Alice Neel’s Love of Harlem and the Neighbors She Painted There

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“I love you Harlem,” the American painter Alice Neel wrote in her diary around the end of World War II, and really, she loved everything in it. Neel celebrated Harlem — specifically its ethnically mixed section known as Spanish Harlem or El Barrio — for “your poverty and your loves.” And what Neel eulogized in her diary, she immortalized in oils: street scenes, interiors and, above all, portraits of the men, women and children in a neighborhood far from the suburban Philadelphia of her youth, which the artist adopted as her own.

Little heralded in her lifetime, Neel (1900-1984) has won posthumous acclaim as one of America’s most inventive and peculiar portraitists. Her later paintings, especially, made her sitters strange through thick outlining and unelaborated backgrounds. But behind Neel’s experiments with form were New York lives — of writers and revolutionaries, lovers and petty criminals.

Two dozen of her portraits are on view in “Alice Neel, Uptown,” an affectionate, rooted, and at times achingly nostalgic exhibition at David Zwirner gallery that concentrates on her relationships with fellow Harlemites, most of them black, Latin American or Asian. The show was organized by the writer Hilton Als, who also has written a series of wistful essays for the catalog.

The Zwirner show is one of two important exhibitions of Neel’s work this year. Last month I traveled to the Netherlands to see a major touring exhibition of her paintings, which recently closed at the Gemeentemuseum in The Hague. (It reopens on March 4 at the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles, France.) With more than 70 works, the European retrospective takes in Neel’s entire career, beginning with her earliest portraits, done in Havana, and her paintings from the 1930s, when she lived in Greenwich Village and was employed by the Works Progress Administration. The Village was then the epicenter of bohemian life, and would give rise to Abstract Expressionism, beat poetry and gay liberation. A 1933 painting of the eccentric Joe Gould, in the European retrospective, depicts him as a freak with multiple sex organs; in 1935, she painted the poet Kenneth Fearing, framed by the el train and ghoulish commuters.

But the young Neel hated Greenwich Village. As Mr. Als points out, she considered the neighborhood “honky-tonk” — and so with her lover, the musician José Santiago Negrón, she moved into the first of several railroad apartments in Spanish Harlem, just off Central Park. The Zwirner show begins here, in the 1940s, when her portraits grow tighter and more acute, and her subjects grow more ethnically diverse. Horace R. Cayton, co-author of the groundbreaking sociological study “Black Metropolis,” sits pensively in a portrait from 1949, his skin lit into fulvous brown by sunlight from a single window. The next year Alice Childress, a playwright, sits by the same window, serene and satisfied, in a blue dress whose ruches Neel renders with fat black lines.

~~~ FINISH THE PIECE  ~~~

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